Practice Runways: A low-cost pilot proficiency tool

It is finally summer in Alaska. Salmon are running in the rivers, wild roses are blooming on the roadsides and paint marks are starting to appear on select gravel runways around the state. Paint marks? On gravel runways? Are you crazy? Only a little, but read on…

Threshold of the freshly painted "practice runway" on the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

Threshold of the freshly painted “practice runway” on the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

Last week a twelve-person crew armed with 5 gallons of white paint, a sprayer, couple of plywood templates and a bunch of enthusiasm, assembled to create two “practice runways” on the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport. Each end of the gravel runway (named the Ski Strip, because that’s it’s winter occupation) now sports a 25 foot wide by 800 foot long “practice runway.” Delineated by white 2 x 4 foot white rectangles painted directly on the packed gravel surface every hundred feet, it simulates a narrow, short runway pilots are liable to be landing on at back-country airstrips or gravel bars. These landing areas, often surrounded by trees, with rough surfaces, provide access at their favorite hunting, fishing or camping spot. The practice runways don’t provide the full range of conditions encountered in the field, but are also without the consequences– if you don’t get down and stopped in the right place on the first try!

Airports and stakeholder working together
Often these projects are a collaborative effort between the airport owner and a volunteer group that teams up to paint the markings in the spring, after the runway has been graded and packed. At Fairbanks, AOPA Airport Support Volunteer Ron Dearborn put out a call for volunteers using General Aviation Association’s email list, which brought help not only from that group but also from members of the Alaska Airmen’s Association, Midnight Sun Chapter of the Ninety Nines. and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Aviation Program.

AOPA Airport Support Network Volunteer Ron Dearborn lining out tasks for painting the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

AOPA Airport Support Network Volunteer Ron Dearborn lining out tasks for painting the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

Previously established reference markers off the side of the runway make it easy to lay out markings for the paint crew.

Previously established reference markers off the side of the runway make it easy to lay out markings for the paint crew.

Plywood templates allow the paint crew to quickly leap frog from one mark to the next.

Plywood templates allow the paint crew to quickly leap frog from one mark to the next.

As soon as the NOTAM closing the Ski Strip went into effect, and after a safety briefing by airport operations staff, the crew took possession of the runway. They marked and painted the two practice runways in just under an hour. Assembling the crew and equipment, and cleaning up afterward took more time than actual painting itself. After the work was done, the group celebrated with baked goodies and beverages, before calling it a night. The Ski Strip stayed closed overnight to let the paint dry, but by the following day, airplanes were hard at it, doing stop-and-goes.

This is the fourth year that volunteers have worked with the airport operations staff to create this piece of infrastructure at Fairbanks, and other airports around the state. The practice runways have proven to be popular not only for super cub drivers, but with students just learning to fly and pilots of a wide range of aircraft wishing to calibrate their landing distances. Other airports that have received a “modification to standards” from the FAA to create practice runways on their gravel runways include: Goose Bay (Z40), Nenana (PANN), Palmer (PAAQ), Soldotna (PASX) and Wasilla (PAWS). I encourage you to use one of these practice strips and see how well you can hit the marks– and how much runway it takes to get stopped.

If your airport has a runway you think might be suitable for a practice runway, contact your airport manager to see if they are interested. The airport typically will need to coordinate with FAA Airports Division to approve a “modification to standards” which specifies how the runway may be marked. This is still a new program, only happening in Alaska. A guide has been developed based on experience from several seasons to help airports owners and volunteer groups figure out how to undertake a similar project. I encourage you to consider whether this program makes sense at your airport, as a small but positive way to influence aviation safety and proficiency.

It certainly makes it much more fun to get out and practice take off’s and landings!

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